How 3am appeal for help from a pregnant woman led me down a rabbit-hole of worry and guilt

It’s 3am, I’m sleep deprived after a long coach journey from London and I find myself on Digbeth High Street alone. Within five seconds I’m approached by a homeless woman begging for my help.

I had earlier reassured worried parents I’d be fine getting a taxi to my car straight from the coach station in the safety of a black cab. So what could possibly happen within that small transition?

But within an hour of arriving back in Brum on Monday morning, I was £40 down and feeling dispirited that my well-intentioned efforts to help this woman were in vain.

Read more: Former rough sleeper who survived Beast from the East says ‘cruel’ 200-year-old law didn’t make him ‘feel like a human’

In the space of a few minutes, an offer of a lift turned into me handing over cash, and then a taxi ride to who-knew where. By the end of our encounter, my head was left spinning and I couldn’t shake the guilty feeling I had only fuelled this woman’s habit.

So what happened? I’d been heading back to Worcestershire after a two-night break in Portugal when this lady stopped me in the street. She didn’t have a coat, only a thin jacket to keep her and – as I was to soon discover – her unborn baby warm.

As soon as she asked for ‘help’ I told her I didn’t have cash – it wasn’t a lie. It’s also something most of us will have done, when in a rush and trying to get to where we’re going.

April 2020.

“I don’t need cash,” she told me hurriedly, “I just need to get home, I’m pregnant and I’m so cold.” The words spilled out of her mouth immediately as though she had been expecting this standard response. Wasn’t it awful, I thought, that I had tried to walk on, trailing behind me a suitcase packed with brand new holiday clothes and a (fake) Louis Vuitton handbag perched on top.

Where she needed to get to was on my way home. I could drop her off without needing to part with any cash. As I thought up this plan to help she continued to tell me I could take a photo of her, she would tell me her name and even show me her baby bump to ‘prove’ her condition.

“Come with me to get my car,” I told her, “it’s parked at my office, I’ll take you home from there.” I felt happy she would be somewhere safe, and I’d see her to the door. If I was alone, cold and left outside in the darkness, I’d hope someone would do the same for me.

Suddenly her story changed. She told me she was homeless and asked if, instead of travelling there, I could hand her £10 cash for a night in a homeless shelter. She would also need another £10 for food. I wasn’t sure how the plan had changed so quickly from what we’d agreed moments before.

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I felt I was being swindled, but still wanted to help. I withdrew £30 from a cash point inside the coach station. She followed and as I looked over my shoulder to tap in the pin, she was watching from a seat close by.

As we headed back into the street she looked at me with a glimmer of hope in her eyes and, with more sincerity than I could have imagined, whispered: “Thank you so much for helping me”. Any fear she was planning to mug me, or wait for a male accomplice to do the dirty work, disappeared. But turning the corner to view the lined-up taxis, there was another sudden change of plan.

Backing herself into a dark doorway and asking me to follow, she told me she needed that £20 cash now. The sudden demand threw me off balance again and even though I thought about it for several minutes, and questioned it, I eventually decided it was easier to hand it over.

What would have happened if I hadn’t given her the money? Would she have just taken it anyway? Either way, even with my cash she told me she still needed that taxi to get to the ‘homeless shelter’ – and I still needed a cab to get myself home too. The cabbie was unfriendly to her and told her: “You know you need at least £12 to get in my taxi”.

The woman was known to the taxi driver, who tried to warn her she didn’t have the money before we got in

I opened the door and let her inside first. She looked confused and wasn’t sure how to deal with that. Minutes into the trip, she became aggressive, raising her voice with the driver as the plan was altered again.

A drop to a shelter for somewhere ‘safe’ for the night quickly changed to a stop-off at the ’24 hour shop’. And, after taking a phone call on her tiny Nokia, she demanded we travel out to an address in Handsworth.

En-route she tried to make small talk, asking how I was and if I’d been on holiday. I felt saddened at what my entirely privileged replies would have been as I sat beside someone who was clearly on the edge of society, struggling to survive.

I brushed her questions off and asked if she’d be safe where we were heading. “I should be,” she replied with a total lack of conviction. She told me she would go to her nan’s, but she didn’t want to “bring trouble to her door”.

Homeless stock photo

When we arrived at our destination it was just a residential road lined with terrace homes. But she knew exactly where to stop and instructed the cabbie: “Keep going driver”.

She got out and began knocking on a door. No-one answered. “What do we do now?” I asked the driver. Alone now, he told me we needed to leave and grilled me on why I would ever think it was a good idea to bring her in a taxi.

“You gave her money? Why would you do that? You know she will just spend that on drugs,” he said. The reality of what I had done washed over me.

I was in a daze of worry for her, but also annoyance at myself for being taken in and fuelling her apparent habit instead of making sure she was safe. After all that, had I just left her in a worse position?

She is known to the cabbies at Digbeth Coach Station, our driver went on. She does this a lot in order to ‘get her next hit of crack cocaine’ and on one occasion, drug dealers came into another driver’s taxi and ‘took over it’, he warned me.

Cash stock image

He reassured me before asking for the £20 fare. “Don’t worry about it, you’re safe now. Nothing will happen to you,” he said.

As he drove me back to Birmingham city centre I couldn’t shake the feeling this woman still wasn’t safe. The driver kindly waited for me to retrieve my ride from the car park and drive off safely.

Colleagues reassure me “perhaps that £20 meant she wouldn’t have had to solicit on the streets that night” and “how could you have changed her life in one night with £40?”

But I knew I hadn’t made the right decisions and the situation had got away from me. I also knew there must be a better way to help when faced with this situation. So I made enquiries with the Homeless Service Lead at Trident Reach in the hope I’d learn something myself and maybe help others if they find themselves in a similar situation.

What to do if you are concerned about a homeless adult

“If you are concerned about someone over the age of 18 who you have seen sleeping rough in Birmingham, you can use the website or download the street link app to notify outreach services,” he said.

“The details you provide are sent to the Trident Reach’s Rough Sleepers Outreach Team, who will go out and visit the person and offer appropriate support, help with accommodation, and connection into support services.

“It is important to note that if you think the person you are concerned about is under 18, please do not contact StreetLink but instead call the police.”

We ask you to provide the following information:

  • A specific location for the rough sleeping site. You can do this by using a map to pinpoint the exact location and then providing a written description of the location.

  • Details of the time that the rough sleeper has been seen at the location.”

Have you had a similar experience? What would you have done? Let us know in the comments.

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